Danny!: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features

To make your television debut on the eve of your record’s release is a big deal, sure. To do so alongside The Roots—whose drummer serves as the co-founder of Okayplayer, the label you’re releasing said record on—is the stuff of dreams for a young musician. And to additionally consider the fact that your album is the flagship release for the relaunch of Okayplayer, which has more or less been dormant for the better side of a decade? That’s a whole lot to handle, but for Danny!, the latest beat-crafter and rhyme-rouser to turn the biggest heads in hip-hop, it’s all in a day’s work.

Riding the ascending riffs, honeyed background vocals and metallic palpitations of “Evil,” the first single off of Payback, Danny! took to Fallon’s stage in September with the dexterity and ability of someone who’s been at it long before Questlove ever looked his way. Danny!—who’s previously released material under his given name, Danny Swain—has worked toward this for the past 10 years, self-producing his way from DIY releases to recording contracts with Definitive Jux and Interscope before signing with Okayplayer in 2011. Though Payback was initially intended for an Interscope release, it was the shift to Okayplayer that provided a burst of much needed inspiration for Danny! and the move that propelled him towards the completion of the record.

“I was in the processs of writing and recording Payback when I switched labels,” he recalls. “There weren’t too many ‘A-HA!’ moments before, or anything like that. Halfway through writing it I started to really get motivated—I wanted to put the album out, but I wasn’t sure it was ready. I just wanted to make sure it was done. Once Interscope dropped me and Okayplayer took me in, I felt more of a sense of urgency and more of a love for the reason why I started working on the album in the first place.”

Throughout this transition, Danny! felt particularly drawn to hip-hop and R&B hailing from the mid ‘90s-Y2K, and its pervasive influence provides a plethora of gotcha! moments where recognizable samples strengthen his lyrical arsenal—namely the cooing baby from Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” in Payback’s intro, and the chorus from Missy Elliott’s “Gossip Folks” on “Go That-A-Way.”

“I was listening to a lot of Timbaland and Missy Elliott songs from the ‘90s, and I was like, ‘Man! They were so ahead of their time!’” he says. “That stuff was so innovative back then, and to hear it today, it still sounds great. No one has carried that torch. In a sense, I wanted to be the one to just bring that sound back, taking Timbaland’s beats over and starting from scratch for the most part. I had basic parts for most of the lyrics, but I wanted to revamp them and make sure the songs would stand the test of time, in that I feel like some of the production I had originally was kind of dated back a couple years. I definitely wanted to tip my hat to a lot of people on the album.”

Even “Evil” reflects Timbaland’s fondness for strings and cinematic sitar cameos, and as Danny! plows into the bridge awash in a contrasting flurry of warm violin strains and strident cymbal crashes, a beatboxing sample from a remix of Elliott’s “Hit ‘Em Wit’ Da Hee” wraps up the drawn out creative process behind his most ambitious album to date in a matter of four lines: “Sometimes I feel like doin’ a beat/Sometimes I don’t/Sometimes I feel like movin’ my feet/Sometimes I won’t.” The September Fallon performance of “Evil” in particular frames Danny! in his ideal setting, surrounded by like-minded musicians as he belts out Timbaland’s verse before leaping into his own rhymes.

It’s this mix of old, new and true-to-yourself, cut-bullshit-balladry that was worth switching labels and redoing Payback, and continuing on this path while bringing a band into the equation are on deck for Danny! in the coming year.

“There were times when I thought I had it, and I thought I ‘did the damn thing,’ as they say,” he laughs. “But then I hit the Fallon show, and that’s when I thought, that’s doing it. As soon as you hear the band playing, you hear a difference between artists that rap with the microphone and turntables versus somebody who’s got a live band behind them. Since playing [with The Roots], I don’t think I’ve played with live band since, so I’ll definitely get back towards compiling a touring live band to perfect my live show.

Not being onstage by yourself helps a lot. If you’re doing a hole-in-the-wall show and there’s a DJ in the back and it’s just you, and you’re hopping around, you’re going to look crazy and you’re going to feel silly doing all these kind of things by yourself. When you have a band interacting with you, that’s cool—you feed off the energy, you all give off vibes, you all bounce around like characters. That’s what a crowd wants to see and hear—they want to see this energy, and capture it in a bottle.”

It has yet to be seen if Timbaland, Elliott or any of the other artists Danny’s paid homage to on Payback will come out of the woodwork and collaborate with the aspiring beat genius in 2013, and hopefully the Fallon performance is the first of many that pairs Danny! with The Roots and the rest of his Okayplayer family. Out of all of these samples and tracks of borrowed tape, it’s a Joan Rivers quote from an episode of Louis C.K.’s show, Louie—in which she justifies the industry headaches they endure because for them, comedy is not a job but a “calling”—that, oddly enough, resonates with Danny! the most at the close of a banner year.

“I knew this was my calling when I was making the music,” he says. “I went from questioning as to whether or not this was my calling to just being inspired and motivated. It reminded me that this is what I wanted to do. Cranking out these songs on Payback, I was like, ‘I’m never as happy as I am whenever I’m making a beat and blaring these samples with all these drums. I’m never really truly happy unless I’m working on music in some way.’ For me, that’s how I realized this was my calling. Without I doubt I know that this is what I’m meant to do. Even if I’m not doing anything active on the commercial level, I feel like I’ll always be entrenched in music in some capacity. For me, I had the jolt that was in Questlove coming out of nowhere. He picked me up as his first artist on Okayplayer, so that’s definitely a reason to get it down and get inspiration from somewhere. The biggest thing I learned from this experience wasn’t on a technical level or on a production level, but just inspiration, and how it made all the difference in the world for me. The music is just my calling.”

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